In a case likely to be the first of many like it, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held last week that temporary illnesses or injuries can qualify for protection from disability discrimination in employment. Although the Fourth Circuit does not have jurisdiction in Ohio, the case should have a positive impact for Cleveland employees who suffer from significant, but temporary, illnesses or injuries.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act it is, naturally, illegal to discriminate against an “individual with a disability.” One would think common sense can tell us who has a disability and who does not, but the question has vexed courts for a long time. For nearly twenty years after the ADA was passed in 1990, courts analyzing the definition of “disability,” construed it narrowly. Sometimes, courts held an employee was not limited enough in their activities of daily living. Other times, courts held that the activities an employee could not perform were not important enough to qualify for protection. And relevant to our discussion here, in 2002, the Supreme Court suggested that a temporary impairment—typically one lasting six months or less—could not be considered a disability, no matter how severe.
Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act in 2008 in response to these restrictive cases. Concerned that courts had been denying protection to many people who did have disabilities, Congress clarified that the definition of “disability” should be construed broadly in favor of coverage. Congress also instructed the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to issue new regulations explaining the definition of disability. Among the regulations the EEOC issued was one concerning temporary impairments. In contrast to prior disability discrimination law, the EEOC explained that temporary impairments can qualify as a disability if severe enough.
Last week, the Fourth Circuit became the first federal Court of Appeals to apply the new and clarified definition of “disability.” In Summers v. Altarium Institute, the Court had to decide whether a plaintiff who suffered broken legs, tendons, and ligaments in a fall could be considered disabled. The Court did not seem to struggle in answering yes. The Court pointed out that while a temporary impairment must be “sufficiently severe” to qualify as a disability, the plaintiff was likely to be unable to walk for more than seven months. Despite the temporary nature of his injuries, the Court held he met the definition of disability.
In light of the clarified definition of disability, it was probably only a matter of time before courts started recognizing that temporary illnesses and injuries can qualify as a disability. It’s a welcome development that will help many employees in disability discrimination cases who would have been out of luck before Congress amended the ADA. However, whether a temporary impairment will qualify as a disability in a given case is a highly fact-specific question. Employees with temporary illnesses or injuries should talk to an experienced Cleveland disability discrimination attorney to determine if they are protected.